Why every child under fifteen should learn to speak Chinese

Australians will need to speak and understand Chinese. AFP / Philippe Lopez

No amount of AFL passes in the Oval Office during Prime Minister Gillard’s visit to Washington last month could disguise the real issue facing Australia, the US and the rest of the world: the rise of China.

After economic growth over the last thirty years of ten per cent per year, China is now the world’s second largest economy.

Another twenty years of GDP growth, even at slightly lower levels of around 7.5 percent, as seems likely, will not only deliver an economy four times larger than today, but changes the global balance in ways in which it is difficult to imagine.

Yet imagination is exactly what is required. The significance for Australia is not just economic change but also a cultural challenge for which we have not prepared.

China’s economy has already fuelled Australia’s minerals boom but frankly we “ain’t seen nothing yet”. There is still a relatively low level of GDP per capita in China.

The potential consequences for Australia include not only a two-speed economy, but also the risk of a backlash we can ill afford.

Julia Gillard has an opportunity, with her forthcoming visit to Beijing.

She could lay the foundations for a revolution that will empower Australians to share the prosperity from a deeper and broader engagement with China.

But it will have to start with education, because Australians beyond the mining sector are ill-prepared and under-skilled to benefit from China’s growth over the next twenty years.

Tourism growth out of China grew by a whopping 25 per cent in the last quarter.

China will soon be our largest source of tourists, as it is already for overseas students. And this is unlikely to be temporary.

China’s growing middle class is a game-shifting reality for our service industries.

In finance, the largest banks in the world are now Chinese.

Again in science and medical research, China is investing so massively that it will become a major world player in no time at all.

These are all sectors in which Australia has competitive advantages, but we will need to do more than sit back and expect a free ride on China’s gravy train.

Australians will need to speak and understand Chinese and China, as many of them already do, in far greater numbers.

Language is the key to understanding the complex cultural and political mores of every society.

Given growth predictions for China, no child under fifteen today can realistically afford not to speak Chinese if they want to be competitive in the job markets of the future.

But it’s more than just language.

We need to develop deeper engagement with Chinese universities, industries and local governments which are investing in research and development for the jobs of the future.

Many more Australians need to study China, travel, live and work there.

There are already some such links but all Australian universities and businesses need such a level of engagement. Now. Because our competitors are already doing it.

If we don’t put in place strategies for Australians beyond the mining sector to share in the benefits from China’s rise now, sections of the Australian community might resent the rise of China.

Pauline Hanson, who emerged from an earlier wave of fear of Asia, might have been only an ugly storm in a teacup, but she did revive nasty memories of White Australia amongst our neighbours.

A generation of students being educated without the skills to make it in the new China-centred economic environment will be not only fearful of the changes to come but might also, rightly, be angry.

That could damage Australia’s reputation and the tourism industry and education sector, amongst others, would suffer badly.

For most of Australia’s history, we have relied on a great and powerful friend across the seas to protect us and to ensure open markets for our goods and services.

While our cultural links with Europe remain and our strategic alliance with the US endures, our economic links long ago switched to Asia.

But while iron ore and coal sell themselves, the majority of Australians have had little exposure to the opportunities that beckon in this Asian century.

Some of that is because political leaders, as well as business and universities, have failed in making this a national discussion of critical importance.

We just haven’t given the rise of China much thought, which is surprising after the important national discussion that followed the rise of the original East Asian tiger economies in the 1970s and 1980s.

The strategic challenge for Australia now is quite unique.

China is going to be the world’s largest economy. It has a different political system from other trading partners with whom we have been comfortable in the past.

And we are already even more reliant upon China for our prosperity than any comparable economy, at more than one quarter of our exports.

We are China’s number one destination for foreign investment and a leading beneficiary of the education aspirations of its growing middle class.

Yet many of us remain deeply ambivalent about the world-changing economic transformation of China and underestimate our need to be prepared.

A China strategy is needed for every business and every community across Australia.

In our political debate, China is almost always talked about as a defence threat despite the lack of evidence of such a threat and Australia’s resilient alliance with the US.

In defence there may be a need for caution, as towards all others, but we don’t need to fear China, and we can do much to build upon what has to date been a mutually profitable relationship.

Indeed, greater two-way knowledge and understanding can only reduce potential future tensions.

So the Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing later this month is not just a photo opportunity.

Indeed, a business as usual approach would be a huge disappointment for the businesses and universities that are currently forging the Australia-China relationship and are witnessing increasing competition and increasing smarts across the region.

Julia Gillard’s first foray into China is, on the contrary, a great opportunity for her to show the imagination our relationship with China demands: to announce a national push in education about China, based on a three point strategy.

Firstly, if the numbers of Chinese language programs and students are to increase, we need trained language teachers, which in turn requires a much greater investment in teacher training programs.

Previous pushes in this direction have largely come unstuck because of inattention to this requirement.

Secondly, prospective students are currently wary of varied state examination systems that make it difficult for novice learners to achieve high scores en route to higher education.

Non-Chinese language speaking Australians understandably feel disadvantaged in classes and courses when learning alongside native Chinese language speakers.

These disincentives must be removed and there are many ways this can happen.

One simple way is to have two separate curricula and to insist that all students follow the native speaker curriculum unless they can qualify for a beginners’ program.

Thirdly, we need a national emphasis on China in all its considerable variety and richness of society, culture and history throughout the school and university curricula.

China does not play a major role in education commensurate with its impact on our Australian life and society now, let alone the likely future.

There will be those who want to preserve the existing and the old, but the future in this part of the world must be a mutually beneficial engagement between today’s Australia and a rapidly developing China.

We owe it to the next generation, to provide them with the tools to prosper from the change to come.

A national approach to understanding and engaging China would be an education revolution indeed.